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Chapter Twenty-Nine

Georgia Sakristos gazed at the reporters besieging the Earl of North Hollow's Landing residence and shook her head in disbelief. She'd known Pavel was too stupid to choose matching socks without help, but she'd never imagined he'd try something as blatant as a public murder! More ominously, he'd made the arrangements without mentioning them to her. That might indicate only that he'd realized she would have done her best to dissuade him, but it might also indicate he'd decided he didn't quite trust her anymore. Either possibility suggested her influence over him might be waning, and that was an unpalatable thought. A Pavel Young who couldn't be controlled was about as safe to those around him as a fusion plant with an unstable mag bottle . . . as his most recent—and spectacular—blunder amply demonstrated.


She made her way down an unobtrusive garden path between towering banks of sweet-smelling crown blossom bushes and carded an even less obtrusive security door. It let her into the underground parking area without any of the newsies' noticing, and she nodded to the security man who looked quickly her way. He nodded back in recognition, and she withdrew her ID card from the door lock and headed for the central lifts. She passed the new chauffeur along the way and hid a smile as she watched him supervising the buffer remote working on a ground car. Now how, she wondered, would he react if he discovered that she'd known exactly who he was working for when she authorized his employment?


She put the thought aside in favor of others as the lift door opened. The first part of her plan had worked out perfectly. She'd half expected Harrington's friends to simply kill Summervale once they knew who'd employed him, but what had actually happened might actually be better. Certainly Harrington had proven more dangerous than she'd dared hope! That duel had been a joy to watch, and the captain was also much wealthier than Pavel had assumed. More, she was learning to use the power of her wealth effectively, which was something to bear in mind, given Sakristos' own position in the North Hollow hierarchy. If Harrington chose to respond in kind to today's assassination attempt things could get messy, though Georgia doubted it would happen. Unlike Pavel, Harrington was both willing and able to do her own killing.


All in all, it looked as if Harrington intended to remove Pavel just as thoroughly as Georgia could have hoped. Unfortunately, Harrington had screwed up by warning him she was onto him. Sakristos had expected better tactics than that out of her, but perhaps that had been unfair. She might have gotten close enough to challenge him if she'd kept her mouth shut, true, but she couldn't have found a better way to punish him if she'd considered it for years. He was ready to piss himself in terror, and the impact on his political plans was still worse. The Opposition might defend him in public, but only because they had no choice; in private (and without having to consider how they would have felt if Denver Summervale's killer were hunting them), they were free to express their own opinion of his "cowardice." He'd become a laughingstock in Parliament's cloakrooms, whatever the public appearance. Even his brothers were disgusted with him, and Stefan, the older of them, was already playing up to Georgia.


She grimaced. Stefan was as bad as Pavel in most ways. She knew he was pursuing her primarily to humiliate Pavel by taking "his" woman away—none of the Youngs had ever seen attractive women as anything but a way to keep score, or people less powerful than they as anything except tools—but he was at least a little smarter than his eldest brother. Once Pavel was gone (and once she had that file out of his vault), Stefan should prove much easier to guide. Someone with an imagination was always easier to manipulate, especially when he had the ambition for power and knew his manipulator intended to share it with him.


But first, she reminded herself, Pavel had to go, and he was too busy imitating a Manticoran turtlehound for Harrington to get at him. Sakristos crossed her arms and leaned back against the lift wall, pouting in thought while she wondered if there might be some further way she could help his enemies out. Unfortunately, nothing occurred to her. There were limits to how much exposure she could risk, and she'd already reached them.


No, she told herself, banishing her thoughtful expression as the lift stopped and opened, she'd done all she could except sit back and wait. And at least watching Pavel squirm was the most amusement she'd had in years.


* * *


"We can't tie them to anyone, Milady," the burly LCPD inspector said unhappily. "Three of them were in our files—very bad boys, indeed—but as for who may have hired them—" He shrugged, and Honor nodded. Inspector Pressman might not be willing—or able—to say so, but they both knew who had hired her would-be assassins. Without evidence, there was nothing the police could do, though, and she rose with a sigh, cradling Nimitz in her arms.


"We'll keep looking, Milady," Pressman promised. "All four of them had just made quite large deposits, and we're trying to get a line on where it came from. Unfortunately, they made the deposits in cash, not by card or check."


"I understand, Inspector. And I want to thank you, both for your efforts here and how quickly your people responded."


"I only wish we'd gotten there sooner," Pressman said. "That young man who was hit—your . . . armsman. Is that the right term?" Honor nodded, and the inspector twitched his shoulders. "I'm glad he was there, Milady, but we don't like having to let someone else do our job. Especially not when they get hit that hard in the process."


"Is that a criticism, Inspector?" Honor's tone had cooled, and Nimitz twisted his head around to regard the policeman, but Pressman shook his head.


"Oh, no, Milady. Fact is, we're delighted someone was there to do it that well. In fact, I'd appreciate your passing my compliments to your people. Here in the capital, we're used to dealing with foreign security personnel; every embassy's got them, and, just like your people, most of 'em have diplomatic immunity. The thing is, we don't have any way to tell how good they are until it falls in the toilet. We worry about it—worry a lot—and pulser fire in a crowded restaurant is one of our special nightmares, but that was some of the best reactive fire I've ever seen. They took down their targets without hitting a single bystander . . . and they had the sense to stop shooting when the crowd started to panic and run. I know from experience how hard it is to keep thinking instead of just reacting when one of your own is down, and we could've had a real bloodbath on our hands if they'd lost their heads."


"Thank you." Honor's voice warmed, and she smiled at the cop. "I hadn't realized quite how good they are myself, and I'll be very pleased to pass your comments along to them."


"You do that, Milady, and—" Pressman paused for a moment, then shrugged. "Don't you go anywhere without them, Dame Honor. Not anywhere. Those people were pure hired muscle, and whoever hired them—" the inspector avoided any emphasis with care "—is still out there."


* * *


LaFollet and Candless were waiting when she left Pressman's office. They flanked her, eyes nervous even in police HQ, as they moved to the lifts. Nimitz echoed their tension, fur bristling while a sub-audible snarl quivered through him, and she held him firmly—not to restrain him, but to reassure him.


Corporal Mattingly came panting up with three more of her armsmen as they stepped out of the lift at ground level. Honor was surprised by how quickly the reinforcements had arrived, and she gave all six of her protectors a smile as they took up their positions about her and headed for the exit.


"They don't have any idea who hired them, do they, My Lady?" LaFollet said quietly once he'd checked his team and set them all in motion once more.


"Not officially, anyway," Honor replied. Mattingly stepped through the main doors and scanned the street, then opened the door of the armored ground car the LCPD had laid on. The green-uniformed armsmen turned themselves into a double line of human shields to cover her as she walked quickly to the car, and a dozen heavily armed police stood obtrusively about, two of them cradling heavy military pulse rifles with electronic sights as a pointed hint to anyone with hostile inclinations. The Graysons followed her into the car, and LaFollet heaved a sigh of relief once they had her under armor and moving toward Capital Field at a rapid clip.


"I'm not surprised, My Lady," he said. Honor looked at him, and he flipped a hand in the air. "That the police couldn't ID North Hollow for hiring them. Those were thugs. Off-the-street muscle, not part of his regular staff."


"That's what Inspector Pressman said," Honor agreed, and LaFollet snorted at the slight surprise in her tone.


"It didn't take a hyper-physicist to figure it out, My Lady. Only a complete idiot would use his own people for something like that. And the way they came in showed they were a pickup team. They had a pretty good plan, given the short time frame they must've put it together in, but it wasn't rehearsed. They were watching each other as well as us because the entire operation was off-the-cuff and none of them were dead certain the others would be in the right places at the right time. Besides, they were all worried about getting out again. For a successful assassination, you need people who either know their escape route's almost infallible or don't care whether or not they get out. These clowns were so busy making certain their lines of retreat were open that one of them slipped up and actually let me see his weapon. That's what I meant when I said we were lucky."


"I'm impressed, Andrew," Honor said after a moment. "And not just with how you reacted when it happened, either."


"My Lady, you're a naval officer. I wouldn't even know where to start doing your job, but this is what Palace Security spent ten years training me to do." The Grayson shrugged. "Different planet and different people, My Lady, but the basic parameters don't change. Only the motives and the technology."


"I'm still impressed. And grateful."


LaFollet waved his hand again, uncomfortable with her thanks, and she settled for another smile, then leaned back, Nimitz still tense in her lap, and closed her eyes. The knees of her uniform were stiff with Armsman Howard's dried blood, and she thanked God he was going to be all right. And Willard. Neufsteiler had recovered enough to crack a few weak jokes before the ambulance took him and Howard away, but she shuddered at how close he'd come to dying.


She'd never dreamed innocent bystanders might be caught in the crossfire when she launched her charges at Young. She remembered what Pressman had said about gunfire in a crowded restaurant and shuddered again, breathing a silent but intense prayer of thanks as she considered what could have happened.


It had to have been an act of desperation. Only a terrified man would risk something like this, however well-hidden his links to the killers, and if he'd been panicked enough to try once, he was unlikely to stop trying. She folded her hands around Nimitz, partly to comfort him and partly to keep from pounding her fists on the upholstery.


If he kept trying long enough, he'd get lucky. Worse, someone else would get killed. He might have started this, but she was the one who'd brought matters to a point where other people could die, and that meant it was up to her to end it somehow. Self-preservation demanded it as much as justice or the need to protect bystanders, but how did she get close enough to challenge a man who'd crawled into a hole and pulled it in after him?


She frowned in thought. There had to be a way. No one could cover himself every single moment, unless he wanted to retreat to his private estates and cower there, and Young couldn't do that. He was a politician now, and hiding that obviously would be fatal to his position. Her lips tightened in contempt at the thought of Pavel Young aping the role of a statesman, but it tingled in her brain with a familiar, persistent presence.


Her brow furrowed as she probed at it, sensing its importance with the same intuitive sixth sense that plucked the critical element from a complex tactical problem. She'd never understood how it worked in combat, and she didn't understand now, but she'd learned to trust it the same way she trusted her kinesthetic sense in a high-speed approach maneuver.


He was a politician—or he wanted to be one. She could understand that. With his naval career in ruins, it was the only sort of power he could grab at, and he was a man who craved power. He needed it like a drug, but to exercise it, he had to make regular Parliamentary appearances. That was why he had to stay in Landing. For that matter, it was why he had to kill her. As long as she was alive and her accusations hung over his head, no one would take him seriously. He'd still have his wealth and family name, but they wouldn't help his power base. They could assure him a seat in the Lords, but that was all—


She stiffened suddenly, eyes popping open, and Nimitz's head flew up in her lap. The 'cat twisted around, staring up at her, and bright, unholy fire blazed in his eyes as they met hers.


 


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